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Keep Houston Weird: Dry Creek Café

The grilled ahi tuna salad is a good choice.
Troy Fields

The medium-rare slices of fish on the grilled ahi tuna salad at Dry Creek Café were a juicy watermelon pink in the middle, with a lovely crust of black pepper and spices on the outer edges. The gorgeous fish was served over lettuce tossed with sliced pears, roasted red peppers, almond slivers, tomato wedges and thin sliced red onions. It was an incredible salad, considering that the proprietors of Dry Creek refer to the place as a burger joint.

One morning, I went to breakfast at Dry Creek Café with a regular. We had to sit in a particular area of the restaurant to avoid a waiter he thought was annoying and incompetent. He was on a first-name basis with the manager, who, as it turned out, was drinking coffee at the next table. My friend predicted what time the manager would get up and leave, and what kind of music the staff would play as soon as he left. I felt like I was back in Austin.

When I lived there, Austin was liberally sprinkled with homey little restaurants with very ordinary food, such as Kerby Lane, Magnolia Café and the Omelettry. Regulars of these places overlooked the mediocrity of the fare because they were caught up in the incestuous social scenes. It's not like I was above all that. In my college years, I ate a lot of stale, overpriced bagels at a second-rate sidewalk cafe because I was gaga over the waitress.

Dry Creek Café is one of those restaurants that are wildly popular despite the mediocrity of the menu. The food isn't awful, but it isn't wonderful either. There are a couple of standouts, like the ahi tuna salad and the mashed potatoes, both of which are awesome. Otherwise, breakfast is your best bet.

The "lox plate," a toasted bagel with smoked salmon (it's nova, not lox) with cream cheese, tomato, red onion and way too many capers, was perfectly adequate. Meanwhile, the "Sixth Street Migas," two scrambled eggs with tortilla chips, tomato and cheddar, were bland and boring, although the salsa served on the side was pretty good.
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On a splendid January afternoon, I sat outside on Dry Creek's front patio and ate lunch. The people-watching was first rate. One of the patrons at the next table was visiting from New York, and she kept remarking on the incredible sunny weather. It was a good day to live in Houston, and Dry Creek's patio was a perfect place to enjoy it.

I had one of Dry Creek's "Bad Ass Burgers." The menu advertises 100 percent Angus beef on a whole wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickles. There were six burger options to choose from, not counting the two turkey burgers and the veggie burger. I went for the burger called the "Triple Bypass," which comes with cheddar cheese, bacon, a fried egg and Tabasco mayo. It sounded like just the thing to drive a stake through the heart of my lingering New Year's resolutions.

I tried to like it, but the "Bad Ass Burger" was just plain bad. The previously frozen burger patty was too dense. The stale whole-wheat bun disintegrated into powdery pieces as I attempted to eat the sandwich, leaving me with a fried egg-covered meat patty in my hands and a pile of whole-wheat crumbs all over the table.

I thought maybe this was an isolated stale bun incident, but my friend Jay Francis, who lives nearby, told me he hated the burgers at Dry Creek because the buns were always stale. "You're better off at Whataburger," he said. "They give you more lettuce, too."

Dry Creek Café is owned by the same folks who operate Onion Creek Coffee House, a few blocks down White Oak Drive. Both restaurants have more seating outside than inside. Onion Creek has some interesting beers, while Dry Creek is, well, dry. You are welcome to BYOB, however.

There's a "Keep Austin Weird" bumper sticker on the front door of Dry Creek Café and other bits of Austin memorabilia hanging on the walls. There's also a photo of the original Dry Creek Café hanging above the bar. It's odd that the namesake of the ­alcohol-free establishment on Yale Street is an exceedingly eccentric beer joint in Austin.

I used to sit at a cable spool table on the Austin Dry Creek Café's upstairs porch to watch the sun set. "Don't forget to bring those bottles back down," the cranky chain-smoking proprietrix would scream as the sun sank slowly in the west.

I don't know how closely Houston's Dry Creek Café is trying to impersonate an Austin establishment, but the resemblance is uncanny. The first time I went there, I had just dropped somebody off at the airport for an early flight. It was ten minutes after their opening time of 7 a.m. But when I tried to sit down, the waitress told me that nobody from the kitchen staff had shown up for work, so there wasn't any food.

I asked her for a cup of coffee. She said there wasn't any coffee and suggested I go to Onion Creek. It was right down the street, and they probably had it more together, she said. That's slacker service at its finest.

On an evening visit, I asked the drop-dead gorgeous waitress if she recommended the meat loaf or the pork chops.

"I'm a vegetarian," the willowy young brunette responded.

So I asked the other waitress, a cute woman with lank jet-black hair, which of the two dishes she liked better.

"I don't know, I'm a vegan," she said dismissively.

I was filled with a warm sense of nostalgia for my former hometown. When I reviewed restaurants for the Austin Chronicle, I was once forced to file a police report after a local vegan group left a death threat on my answering machine. Those were the good old days.

I ordered the pork chops, but I asked if they could be cooked just until they turned pink, rather than well-done. The vegetarian waitress went to the kitchen, came back and said, "They're already cooked."

They weren't bad, for well-done pork chops. There were two of them. They were sliced too thin, but they had a spicy rub on the outside. They sat in a watery pool of sweet glaze. The mashed potatoes served on the side were wonderful, and the chopped asparagus was pleasantly crunchy.

My dining companion, Jay Francis, ordered the meat loaf. What he got looked more like large meatballs in spaghetti sauce. He said it tasted like bottled spaghetti sauce, at that. I sampled a couple of bites. I actually liked the Italian-style meat loaf okay. A side of pasta might have been a better accompaniment than the mashed potatoes, but that's a lot to ask of a burger joint. What I really liked was our tab, which came to almost exactly 20 bucks, including my bottomless cup of herb tea.

Jay Francis wasn't impressed. "You can get the best meat loaf in town for the same price," he told me. I, of course, challenged him on that. And the next thing I knew, we were sitting at Beaver's, Monica Pope's new icehouse near Washington and Sawyer, eating meat loaf.

As we sampled Beaver's big cube of airy meat loaf, Francis speculated that they beat the meat mixture with eggs or something to make it fluffy. It was spectacular, transcendent meat loaf with wonderful mushroom sauce served over the top. And it was listed on the menu for ten bucks, a dollar more than Dry Creek's spaghetti sauce version. I agreed with Francis that it was the best meat loaf I've had in ­Houston.

"Beaver's barbecue isn't there yet, though," I said as I gnawed on a big tough pork rib that tasted like it had been cooked with diesel fuel. Word is that they're on their second barbecue pit boss, and they've switched from oak and alder to mesquite and cherry wood. The brisket had an aroma reminiscent of burnt rubber.

Despite the bad barbecue, Beaver's was very busy on a Tuesday night. I think their innovative cocktails are a big part of the attraction. But I also think Beaver's Icehouse is growing in popularity for the same reason that Dry Creek Café and all those restaurants in Austin are packed all the time. The social scene is way more interesting than the food.
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It wouldn't take much work to improve the food at Dry Creek Café. How hard would it be to get some fresh, never-been-frozen meat and some buns that didn't fall apart in your hands? Wouldn't it be great if a cool hangout like Dry Creek Café served fresh-made spicy burgers like the ones at Tornado Burgers?

But if the food was great, would it still feel like an Austin hipster hangout?

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